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Review: Kirkland Signature Vodka (or, Is It Or Is It Not Grey Goose?)

There’s just no possible way to write a decently comprehensive piece about Kirkland Signature’s bowling-pin-sized vodka offering without addressing the rumor that swirls around it – is it repackaged Grey Goose?  Every Costco representative I’ve talked to about the stuff has at least mentioned the rumor, as have many of the people who have seen one of the bottles near my liquor shelf (usually it’s too tall to go with the rest and demands special display).  Google was no help, as there were no substantiated claims either way, just a lot of arguing back and forth.  The most likely theory the Bartender found was that KS had bought an old Grey Goose distillery and was using water from the same river in France to produce it, but again, it was presented without any evidence.

While taste tests are always going to be somewhat subjective, it seems likely that comparing two products for objective similarities and differences should be far easier to do with accuracy than simply trying a single spirit and giving it a rating.  Additionally, the Bartender cites her above-average depth of experience with vodka-tasting, as well as her lukewarm reaction to Goose from the fancy frosted bottle, as qualifications to make the call.

So, are they the same thing?  Drumroll, please…

No.  No, they are not.  And in the Bartender’s opinion, the Kirkland Signature is superior.

The rumor’s foundation is certainly easy enough to see.  Nearly identical on the nose and tongue (slightly vanilla-y, slightly sweet, very smooth) it’s not until the finish where the two really differentiate themselves.  As previously noted, Goose just sort of fades off into a very mild burn with no real standout flavors.  Kirkland, on the other hand, is far more distinctive:  a slightly more noticeable burn and notes of charcoal and olive that might lend themselves well to a martini.

Impressive as the Kirkland vodka is, however, the best thing about it might be its price – assuming you already have the Costco membership, you can get a 1.75 L handle of it for $27, less than a single 750 mL fifth of Goose costs.  This makes it only a little more expensive than many mid-shelf vodkas, and it completely lacks the bitter finish of those offerings, which makes it simultaneously a fantastic straight vodka and an excellent mixer.  Wrap that up with the fact that the bottle practically doubles as a cricket bat or home-defense weapon, and how can you say no?  A++ with cherries on top

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Review: Kirkland Signature Premium Small Batch Bourbon

Once again, it’s time for we Americans to celebrate the independence of our nation.  Across the US, millions of people are indulging in those quintessentially Statesian traditions of outdoor barbeques, explosives, and alcohol consumption.  Admittedly, the wisdom of combining those last two concepts seems questionable at best, but the Bartender lives in an area recently plagued with wildfires, and has forgone the explosives for this year – thus allowing her to partake of libations freely.  And really, what could be more American than inexpensive and readily-available Kentucky bourbon?

For those unfamiliar with the Kirkland Signature line, it’s the house brand for Costco Wholesale‘s chain of warehouse stores.  It’s also a store brand of surprisingly consistent quality; one of Costco’s big draws is that they accept returns on anything, no questions asked – if you buy something and don’t like it, you can bring it back (and thanks to the membership system, they don’t even require a receipt).  Obviously, this creates an incentive to stock products of good quality, and the Bartender was very impressed by their vodka offering.  Therefore, when she discovered they had started carrying bourbon as well, she was extremely interested in trying it, especially as the Rebel Spouse’s stock of 1792 (his preferred brand) was currently gone.  And if it could stand up to the 1792 in quality, it represented a significant potential savings – $20 for a liter as opposed to $28 for a fifth.

Alas, Kirkland’s first impression was not positive.  At 103 proof, the stuff is extremely hot when drunk straight; what few notes come through the alcohol burn are overpoweringly oaky and sour.  Adding a bit of water, or serving it on the rocks, helps some; the flavors open up, allowing some charcoal and molasses notes through and giving it a bit more complexity.  It does, however, still burn significantly on the way down; this is pity party bourbon of the first degree.

In all fairness, it’s not without its charms – it mixes up into a perfectly decent whiskey sour, and the strong flavor would probably work very well in bourbon lava cakes.  But I wouldn’t really recommend it straight unless you enjoy the sensation of having your taste buds scalded into submission.  C+

Review: Ketel One Oranje

Back when the Rebel Bartender was a teenager growing up with a teetotaling mother, her few experiences with alcohol came entirely from what she could filch from the kitchen.  Teetotaler her mother may have been, but she was also a fine cook, and a moral stance against alcohol was no reason to compromise the quality of a bourbon cake with imitation spirits (hello, Jim Beam!). And of those experiences, the one that stands out most vividly was trying pure orange extract – largely because the stuff was nearly 80% alcohol (hello, scalded sinuses!).

Ketel One Oranje reminds the Bartender quite a bit of that experience, although fortunately without the deleterious effects on mucous membranes.  The nose is almost completely sweet orange, with a bit of alcohol vapor in the back of the throat; the taste is an odd but pleasant sweet-bitter combination of orange juice and orange peel.  And really, that’s all there is to it.

It may come as a surprise to the newly rebellious, but orange is a tricky flavor in mixology.  Straight orange juice tends to overpower everything else in the drink with some alacrity – there’s a reason you rarely see it outside of screwdrivers.  Triple sec, on the other hand, is usually used as an accent, and therefore tends to be fairly weak.  Ketel One Oranje, whatever it lacks in complexity, does fill that middle ground nicely – you can use it to add a distinct orange note without steamrollering the other flavors.  And if you happen to be making chocolate-chip cookies or a buttercream frosting, might the Bartender recommend tossing an ounce or two of this in the mix?  A-

Review: Wild Hibiscus Flowers in Syrup

For approximately half a year, the Rebel Bartender worked at one of the wineries in the Sonoita region of Arizona – yes, we have wineries, and multiple areas of them, at that!  One of the products we regularly demonstrated were these:  wild hibiscus flowers, candied in syrup.  And while the salesmanship of the winery staff was certainly above par, the fact that we sold so many of these probably had more to do with the product itself than anything about our demonstration.

Like many great ideas, it’s simple enough at the core, but endlessly versatile.  Pour a flute of champagne and drop one in the bottom along with a bit of the syrup; you have an instant cocktail fancy enough to serve at a party with less than a minute of preparation.  Drain a few and use for color and sweetness in a salad.  Use as garnish to any cocktail with a sweet/floral character.  Or – as more than one returning winery customer admitted to doing – grab a fork and eat a few straight out of the jar for dessert.  (They’re quite tasty, if a bit sweet – the jar claims “raspberry and rhubarb flavors”, but the Bartender always felt they resembled a Fruit Roll-Up in both texture and taste.  Perhaps a bit much on their own, they complement the dryness of champagne nicely.)

Really, their only downsides are their rarity – the Bartender has only found them in specialty stores and gourmet food shops – and their price.  A small jar (eleven blossoms, give or take) tends to run $10-$12, and a large one (50 blossoms) closer to $40.  Theoretically, they don’t spoil, but after about six months in the fridge the Bartender lost the remaining half of her large jar to fermentation, so if you work with yeast in the kitchen at all and don’t have a large party planned, the smaller jar might be a better investment.  Or you could take the remaining blossoms with some champagne to a sunset picnic on top of a mountain and impress your friends with a beautiful and delicious dessert.  A

Picture of Wild Hibiscus jar ganked from wholesalegourmet.net.  Picture of hibiscus at sunset taken by the Rebel Spouse atop Mule Mountain, Arizona.

Vodka Week Finale: Potato Vodka Smackdown! Chopin vs. Vikingfjord

A quick look at any American liquor store’s vodka selection will demonstrate the general lack of fondness for potato vodkas on these shores.  Compared to the myriad grain vodkas on the market here, potato is given little shelf space.  The general consensus (from the Bartender’s admittedly unscientific and anecdotal survey of public opinion) appears to be that potato vodkas are too oily in texture to appeal to the mass market here. Or, as many a drinker of mainstream American beer has said upon trying a proper Trappist ale for the first time, “Eugh.  Too much flavor.”

It’s been a long week here for the Rebel Bartender, with the seemingly endless stream of grain vodkas to try  – enough to determine, at least, that most of her problems with vodka in general are actually problems with grain vodka.  Fortunately, she remembered trying Chopin once and enjoying it; and so it was that she found herself with a bottle of the stuff, getting ready to give it a go.

The difference between Chopin and grain vodkas is clear long before it even reaches your lips.  The nose is less sweet; there’s some vanilla, but it’s much richer and has earthier notes that give a much fuller sense of aroma, forming a surprising contrast for someone used to the thin harshness common to grain vodkas.  But even more distinctive is the taste:  rich and smooth in texture, with very little burn.  Trace notes of sweet spices (nutmeg, even clove) linger in the back of your palate, and the creamy mouth-feel and slightly sweet flavor are very pleasant, almost like tapioca pudding.  And in a martini, the vermouth brings out those earthy and spicy tones while harmonizing with the slight sweetness, creating a truly exceptional drink with almost no work at all.  The $35ish price point is a bit high, but for a classy, impressive, flavorful martini (or even straight shot), it’s hard to beat this vodka.

Initially, Chopin was going to be the only potato option on the list, but a dark horse challenger arrived at the last minute.  One of the fine clerks at Plaza Liquors in Tucson suggested Vikingfjord, a potato vodka out of Finland, saying that it was comparable with Chopin for less than half the price.  The Bartender was skeptical of his claims, but decided to try it out – for $12, it was hardly much of a risk.

The results?  Not bad at all.  Much sweeter than the Chopin, with an immediate strong vanilla flavor (but lacking the harsh vanilla-extract tone of most grain vodkas), and a smooth, buttery texture.  There’s a pleasantly mild burn with perhaps a touch of bitterness in the back of the throat, but a refreshing one.  Vermouth tempers the sweetness some and makes for a richer and fuller flavor, albeit one still very slanted toward the “sweet” end of the spectrum.

Ultimately, the Bartender found it superior to the grain vodkas, but not quite in the same league as the Chopin.  For the price, though, if you’re a fan of the vodka martini, it’s worth having a bottle of this around for everyday.  But do keep some Chopin in reserve for when you want to impress someone.  Or just for days when you feel like dressing up in a tuxedo, putting on some appropriate spy music, and channeling your inner James Bond.

Chopin:  A+

Vikingfjord:  A

Review: Belvedere Vodka

Vodka Week looks to be stretching itself out to something more resembling a fortnight, but we’ve come nearly to the end of the Bartender’s planned review lineup.  And, much to her relief, this is the final grain vodka she has on the list.

Belvedere, in addition to having the classiest bottle of the bunch (hard to beat neo-Classical architecture for sheer elegance), is also distilled from rye, not wheat, which might account for it having the most distinctive flavor as well.  Unfortunately, it also serves as an excellent example of the dangers of individuality for its own sake, as the flavor in question is a steely, metallic note reminiscent of nothing so much as envelope glue.

Envelope glue?

Yes, envelope glue.  The Bartender couldn’t quite believe it either, but her years as an administrative assistant have left her rather familiar with the flavor, and it dominates Belvedere’s mid-palate.

In all fairness, this is possibly the smoothest vodka of the bunch, with even less burn than Grey Goose.  But the strange flavor combined with an unpleasantly bitter finish (the Rebel Spouse thought it reminiscent of grape seeds) makes it fairly unpalatable when drunk straight.

The taste improves immeasurably in a Martini.  The bitterness recedes into the background, and while the vermouth brings the metallic notes (in all their stationery-adhesive glory) to the forefront, they become oddly refreshing at colder temperatures.  But once again there’s just not that much complexity to the flavor; you get the metallic notes, the slight bitterness, and then that’s pretty much that.

The Bartender applauds the makers for coming up with a slightly different take in an overcrowded category, but given the mixed results and the $30-$35 price point, it’s not something she can recommend except to hardcore vodka fanatics and collectors of pretty bottles.  C

Review: Cîroc Vodka

Cîroc Vodka, in addition to causing the fastidious blogger to use their copy-paste keys at a higher rate than normal, is something of an outlier in the vodka category.  The bottle claims that it is distilled from snap-frost grapes, which, if the Bartender’s knowledge gained working at a winery serves her well, are the same grapes from which they make ice wine.  Which is to say, they’re grapes left on the vine until the first frost hits, at which point they go crazy making as much sugar as possible.  Shortly thereafter, they’re picked and fermented into high-proof, very sweet wines.  Or, in this case, vodka.

Vodka, cognac, or wine in disguise?There’s not a lot in the nose to betray its unusual character.  A touch of fruitiness in the back of the throat, maybe, but that might just as well be one’s brain responding to the expectations created by seeing “Distilled From Fine French Grapes” on the bottle.  The rest is just a small amount of what the Bartender is starting to think of as “vodka smell” – that slightly-medicinal alcohol odor overlaid with a touch of vanilla extract.

Taste it, though, and suddenly a whole separate, frankly schizophrenic plane of flavors opens up.  On the one hand, there’s the familiar vodka burn (pleasingly so, not overly harsh or strong), but overlaid on that framework is a medley of sweet and fruity notes, almost like you might find in a Gewürztraminer.  It’s not an unpleasant flavor, by any means – the Rebel Spouse even liked it, unusual for him and straight spirits – but it’s not at all what one tends to think of when they imagine “vodka”.  Really, it’s quite appropriate that they’ve got Sean “Diddy” Combs advertising the stuff:  it tastes like a remix of two disparate flavors, one that (like many hip-hop remixes) has no right to work as well as it does.

Shaken up in a martini, Cîroc continues to confound expectations.  In every other vodka martini the Bartender has tried, there’s been the vodka flavor and the vermouth flavor, and in particularly good ones, the two flavors blend slightly while still maintaining their distinctiveness.  Cîroc, on the other hand, almost completely disappears – as does the vermouth – combining to form something that’s not bad, but not quite equivalent to the sum of its parts.  Given how palatable the Cîroc is alone, however, the Bartender will declare this the exception to her “dry martinis are pointless” rule.

Ultimately, whether this is worth the $30-$35 price point is going to be a matter of taste – if you’re looking for a good, plain, traditional vodka, this isn’t the right choice for you.  If you’d like to try something a bit different, however, this is well worth your time.  And if you want something to impress your jaded-drinker friends, shake it up bone-dry and garnish with a big fat red grape.  Then sit back and enjoy the expressions on their faces.  A-

Review: Ketel One Vodka

As Vodka Week approaches its second seven-day span and shows no sign of stopping, some readers might be surprised at the lack of mention of a certain ubiquitously-advertised brand, as a subject or even as a comparison.  There is, in fact, a reason for this, as this particular brand is one that has never failed to disappoint the Bartender, despite the number of variations and ways she has tried it, and she has therefore forsworn spending money on it again, or paying it any attention whatsoever.

That said, other reviewers have described Ketel One as “the vodka {other brand} wishes it was”, and that’s an assessment with which the Bartender will wholeheartedly concur.  The noses are very similar – antiseptic, with maybe a touch of vanilla extract – but there’s a world of difference on the tongue.  The Brand Which Shall Not Be Named inevitably serves up a harsh, one-note medicinal character with an unpleasant burn going down.  Ketel One, while still possessing a touch of that medicinal burn, is significantly more complex – the immediate lemon-rind flavor gives way to a slight richness mid-palate and an almost peppery finish.

As for the martini test, K-1 (as it should be referred to in hip ‘n’ swingin’ circles, if it isn’t already) proves itself perfectly competent.  The harshness is muted some by the cold, mostly leaving the lemon/pepper combination with a touch of creaminess that complements the vermouth nicely.  Nothing to amaze and delight the seasoned drinker, but perfectly palatable and with a nice selection of tasting notes to savor.  For a spirit that regularly retails around $20-$25, it’s a surprisingly decent showing.  B+

Review: Grey Goose Vodka

Any discussion or appraisal of American vodka consumption, for better or for worse, has to start with Grey Goose.  Quite possibly the most-recognizable premium vodka on the market, they’re rumored to be the “most-named” vodka in American bars as well (as in, people order a “Grey Goose and tonic” rather than a “vodka and tonic”).  How, exactly, one could measure such a quality outside of anecdotal experience is never quite clarified, but there’s no denying the stuff has a particular cachet.  And give credit where credit is due – that upscale image is hardly hurt by the pretty frosted glass bottle, nor (the Bartender is certain) their savvy marketing campaign.  But they say it’s not the looks but the inside that counts, so…what of the spirit within?

Honestly, the word that came to the Bartender’s mind when she poured her first taste of Grey Goose was “impressive”.  Not in the sense that there’s anything that stands out about it, but (in fact) the exact opposite.  Neutral though it may be in drinks, vodka is pretty unmistakable alone – cheaper brands often give off a rubbing-alcohol smell, and even pricier types usually have a touch of that alcoholic harshness.  Grey Goose’s nose is surprisingly light and easy to miss – there’s possibly a touch of vanilla extract, but you really have to go looking for it.

The vanilla is more prominent on the tongue, and especially in the sides and back of the mouth, along with a slight nutty undertone.  And while there’s a bit of the traditional vodka burn as it goes down, it’s nothing particularly harsh or surprising – even a drinking newbie wouldn’t do the sip-cough-splutter routine when trying it.

This all sounds fairly positive, and it is – this vodka is truly impressive in its smooth texture and general unremarkability.  But that very point also turns out to be its biggest liability.  In a vodka martini, the biggest impression it makes is a complete lack of impression; you can taste the slightly-vanilla sweetness and the vermouth, and…that’s pretty much it.  No surprises in the back of the mouth, no real complexity of flavor, nothing really to untangle or savor. And while this may reflect the Bartender’s lack of experience with premium vodkas, it seems that there should be something else there in the flavor – as previously noted, if vodkas were all truly neutral there wouldn’t be much reason to choose one brand over another.

This all makes Grey Goose a bit of an odd duck when it comes to categorization.  It’s not very interesting on its own or even in a drink showcasing it, unless you’re in the mood for something uncomplicated.  Its neutrality might be a plus in a mixed drink, but the $28-$40ish price point doesn’t make it a particularly attractive choice compared to many other, less expensive mixers.  Given its popularity in America, there’s probably an implication here about the corresponding cultural lack of taste, but the Bartender will leave that connection for others to explore.  C+ (B if you can get it on sale)

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